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What can be done to support the dairy farmers of Sussex

PUBLISHED: 16:52 18 May 2015 | UPDATED: 16:52 18 May 2015

Goodwood milk

Goodwood milk

Archant

During the last year, the South East lost one in 10 of its milk producers: hardly surprising when milk can be cheaper than water. So how do we support our dairy farmers?

Phil Hook with a raw milk deliveryPhil Hook with a raw milk delivery

There was a time when dairy farmer Charlie Hughes was literally giving away his milk for free.

For a month following the collapse of one of the industry’s biggest processors he climbed out of bed at the crack of dawn, knowing there would be no money for his and the cows’ work at the end of the day.

Now Charlie is among 3,000 farmers supplying one of Britain’s biggest dairy companies, the £1.7bn Swedish-owned Arla Foods UK and he’s just received some good news… they’re about to get an extra 0.83 pence for every litre of milk their cows produce. The bad news is, it still won’t cover the cost of milking them.

Lucky for Charlie, then, that he doesn’t have to rely on a monthly milk cheque to keep his third-generation dairy farm, snuggled in the fold of the Downs below Bury Hill, afloat because 60 per cent of the milk produced by his 110 handsome Friesian Holsteins is poured into Southview Farm’s own bottles and sold direct to customers queuing in his new farm shop or via the 80 independent village stores, care homes, schools and workplaces visited on his milk round.

“We started pasteurising our own milk in 2002. At the time we were receiving just 12.7 pence per litre, the lowest we ever got, although when the co-operative processor Dairy Farmers of Britain went bust we got nothing for a whole month’s milk,” he recalls.

Steve Hook with his cowsSteve Hook with his cows

Charlie is one of just a handful of Sussex farmers who have tried to insulate their business from a milk market that everyone acknowledges is deeply flawed but no-one seems able to fix. Most carry on at a loss in the hope that things will improve – the shame of being the generation on whose watch often several lifetimes’ work foundered driving them on.

They are as confused as the rest of us why a pint of one of the most naturally nutritious drinks on earth sells for less than water; why the price of butter, yoghurt and cheese in the shops remained roughly the same last year when the money they received for the raw ingredient fell on average by nearly a third; why when the UK has a £1.72bn billion deficit in dairy products, the number of dairy farmers exiting the industry continues to increase, dipping below 10,000 for the first time last December – half the number there were at the start of the millennium. During the last year, the South East alone lost one in 10 of its producers.

Charlie Hughes is not a backwoods farmer. He’s invested in the latest robotic milking machines, he’s worked hard on achieving the optimum nutrition for his herd, both in the parlour and in the pastures they graze for most of the year, and his cows are producing 10,000 litres of milk apiece – rivalling some of his biggest neighbours. Over 12 months, his total output is one million litres – that’s a lot of milk. And yet, were the farm solely to rely on supplying a processor, it would probably be bust.

So why aren’t there more Charlies? “Dairy farmers overall are good at what they do, but I don’t think many themselves know what an amazing product it is that they produce,” says Steve Hook of Hook & Son at Longleys Farm, Hailsham, probably one of the most famous farmers ever to retail milk.

“I know it’s hugely risky going out on your own, but there’s that old adage of risk and reward, isn’t there? If you can get out of the cycle of selling to a processor and take more control of your own destiny and the price of the milk you have worked so hard to produce, the reward is not just financial. On a human level, it’s also fantastic when consumers believe in what you do.”

Steve and his family got off the hamster wheel in 2007. He’s not as big a producer as Charlie, producing 400,000 litres a year from a similar herd of 78, but he found a niche. Longleys Farm is the UK’s largest seller of unpasteurised, otherwise known as ‘raw’, organic milk, and nearly every drop goes direct from the farm to the consumer. Eight thousand pints a week are delivered to the doorstep in traditional glass bottles, sent in keep-fresh boxes by mail order, or handed to shoppers at farmers’ markets. Most controversially, it’s even been sold in vending machines.

A movie star who shared the screen with a cast of scene-stealing black and white leading ladies in the 2013 hit The Moo Man, Steve is more maverick than most, but what’s driven him are the same hopes and fears that keep any dairy farmer awake at night.

“If I sold to the processor at the moment, I’d be getting 30p per litre for my milk. Our doorstep deliveries are going out at nearly £1 a pint or £1.73 a litre. It’s given us enough to invest in the farm and it’s the first time we’ve been able to do that in a very, very long time,” says Steve. “It’s meant we can employ a lot of people, too – 24 full and part-timers. And it means our kids can come back to a viable business.”

The Hooks, who have not only struggled in a failing milk market, but fought a lonely battle against officials for the right to sell tightly regulated unpasteurised milk through new channels, such as vending machines, are now looking to set up a second herd to keep pace with growing demand.

On the other side of the county, an equally famous brand is also about to expand.

The Goodwood dairy is founded on a traditional breed of dairy shorthorns – easygoing, handsome red and roan cattle, which were once one of the most populous cows in South East England. The 200 milkers’ rich, high-protein organic milk, which is allowed to separate in the bottle to form a delicious creamy layer, has customers smitten.

“The increased demand is purely down to the quality of our milk and the fact that it’s not homogenised,” says farm manager Tim Hassell, who has experience of both organic and non-organic systems and sells through Budgens, independent retailers and off the farm.

The distinctive Duke of Richmond’s crest gives the bottles a certain cache compared to anonymous pints blended from a pool of homogenised milk. But while the dairy processors join supermarkets in the latest price race to the bottom, he believes any local brand can command a premium.

“Just trying to produce something as cheaply as you can doesn’t do it for me and it doesn’t do it for most farmers,” says Tim. “Any farming operation, not just organic, that can see an opportunity to add value to what they do should be exploring it.

“We’ve seen massive growth over the last two and a half years for instance, just going into coffee shops in Brighton and London, to the point that we are going to reinvest in the dairy and double our numbers of dairy shorthorns. It’s critical to keep everything the same – people buy our milk for a reason and we don’t want to change that.”

At the community-owned Kirdford Village Stores in West Sussex, manager Craig Ramus stocks Goodwood milk alongside that from Southview Farm.

“We have some people who enjoy the organic and know exactly what it stands for and some people who just want to know where their milk comes from,” he says.

“They probably drive past Charlie’s farm regularly – it’s only 15 miles down the road.”

But there’s less discussion over the counter about its health merits, although Steve Hook would argue that with recent reports that dairy is not the demon fat we thought, the industry should be making a whole lot more of whole milk. It’s not just good for your soul to buy local, it can be good for your health.

There is now evidence that, contrary to decades of dietary advice, cholesterol found in products like milk, cheese and butter does not raise your risk of heart disease. In fact, compared with carbohydrates, saturated fat can increase the amount of HDL or good cholesterol in your system and lower fat deposits in the blood called triglycerides, which, in theory, protect the heart. Steve’s own doctor was astonished to find that while his overall cholesterol count was slightly higher than average, closer analysis showed that was because he had super-healthy levels of HDL. The results didn’t surprise Steve; he’d been drinking raw milk since he was a kid.


“My customers are very knowledgeable about food, which is why they are buying raw milk. But more than half my consumers on the internet and in London are people who were not born in the UK. It saddens me in a way because a lot of English people have lost their respect for milk and the understanding of why it’s important in nutrition,” says Steve.

Peter Appleton, a third generation farmer from Arlington, East Sussex, who sits on the NFU’s regional dairy farmer board points out that with milk quotas ending this year it should be a golden opportunity for the UK dairy industry to expand. The reality is those farmers who were poised to take advantage of the EU’s artificial cap being lifted at the end of April have been cowed – even in some cases, driven out - by sustained cuts in the milk price.

Now, he says, “there are a lot of farmers sitting across the Irish Sea desperate to flood our market with milk for processing.

“What can shoppers do? Look out for things like the Red Tractor logo to be sure that when they are buying butter, cheese and yoghurt they are buying British and not imported. The second thing is to buy from a supermarket that has a clear record of paying a proper price to its producers. The principal supermarkets will be keen to tell you how well they look after their producers – you can see pictures of their farmers plastered about the shop. And if you can find bottled water that’s more expensive than the milk they are selling, find a member of staff and ask them why.”

***

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